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Kawasaki MotoGP 2006

Interviews with Harold Eckl and Shinya Nakano (Below)

I've always liked rooting for the underdog, so I've been secretly hoping to see Kawasaki's MotoGP effort bear fruit. Kawasaki has always seemed to me to be the orphan child of the Japanese Big Three, and some of their designs over the years have been both unique and off the wall. That's what I like about them!

This may be the year we see my dream come true. Shinya Nakano recently posted the fastest lap time in winter practice at Jerez with a 1:40:047, which went pretty much unnoticed in the traditional press.  The scorching lap time was backed up by Randy de Puniet, Kawasaki's second MotoGP racer, who came in 4th with a 1:40:839, only 0:0:.792 slower.  Will the Ninja ZX-RR really be competitive this year?

According to Harold Eckl, the Kawasaki MotoGP team manager, Kawasaki is on target with their MotoGP plan and goals.

In almost 30 years of professional Grand Prix racing, Harald Eckl honed not only his skills as a rider, but also as a manager and racing engineer.  At a time when motorcycle manufacturers provided only the technical base, and competitive speed and horsepower depended largely on the initiative and ingenuity of the teams, Eckl always shone with ultra-fast and painstakingly prepared motorcycles, as well as a flawless professionalism in the public presentation of his team.

After achieving his own sporting successes with three German 250cc titles, a victory at the famous Daytona Speedweek and regular top ten finishes as one of the best privateers in the Grand Prix paddock, Eckl moved on to lead a factory-backed 125cc team in the World Championship.  He was an easy choice as a partner for Kawasaki when they came to base their World Superbike and World Supersport team in Europe.

After taking over the reins in 1997, Eckl's team not only won the World Supersport title, but also maintained its key role as one of the frontrunners of the World Superbike class, despite increasingly tough competition from rule advantaged 1000cc twin-cylinder machines.

Eckl's unique combination of technical and managerial skills, together with almost three decades of racing experience, made him the ideal choice to spearhead Kawasaki's return to Grand Prix racing in 2003.

2006 marks Eckl's fourth full season as Team Manager of Kawasaki's MotoGP team, and he took some time out for this interview:

Q: This will be your fourth year at the head of the Kawasaki Racing Team, and we've seen the team evolve over this period, but how has your job changed over the past three seasons?

A: We have gradually strengthened the structure of the team over the past three years, to the point where I'm proud to say that we now have one of the strongest teams in the MotoGP paddock.

To achieve this we have significantly increased the size of the team, and this has also meant we've had to re-evaluate the roles people fulfill in the team, including my own.

As a former rider, and an engineer, I have always had a big interest in the technical side of racing, but as a manager I understand that the development of the sophisticated technology we use in MotoGP is better handled by a team of dedicated engineers.

As a result, my involvement in the technical aspects of the team has reduced significantly over the past three seasons, although I do keep abreast of developments and I do have an overview of the technical decision making process.

So, from being very much a hands on manager, in recent years I've had to adapt to meet the changing demands of running a team who spend more than 200 days on the road.  While I have people within the team who I trust to make the right decisions about the day-to-day operational details, I do retain oversight of every aspect of the team operation, to make sure we continue to evolve to meet the demands of racing in MotoGP.

Increasingly a lot of my time is spent representing the Kawasaki Racing Team in meetings with Kawasaki in Japan and also with team partners and sponsors.  In addition, I'm involved with the IRTA committee, who represent the interests of the teams in MotoGP, and I spend a lot of time working with Dorna on the promotion and marketing of the Kawasaki Racing Team.

While I'm still kept busy, one of the advantages of being less involved in the day-to-day operation of the team is that I now have more time to go out and watch the riders when they're out on track.  This is an important part of the job, because it means I can maybe offer some advice to the riders if there is a certain part of the circuit they are struggling with.

Getting out trackside is also an ideal opportunity for me to compare our bike with those of our competitors, as well as keeping an eye on up and coming riders that we may be interested in for the future.

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-RR
The cockpit of the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-RR

Q: Kawasaki returned to MotoGP after a 20-year absence with a very clear five-year plan, with the ultimate aim being to challenge for the world title in 2007. Three years into that plan do you think the original aims and goals are still achievable?

A: The original plan called for us to be in a position to win races this year, and I think that is still an achievable objective.  Of course, to do this we will need the conditions to be right, and maybe we'll also need some luck on our side, but it is certainly possible.

We have made a big step forward over the winter, which can be seen from our competitiveness during pre-season testing.  For sure, we still need to unlock more power from the new engine, especially for the power tracks like Mugello and Catalunya, but I think we're now in a position where a race win is a realistic possibility if everything comes together on the day.

Our original five-year plan assumed we'd still be racing a 990cc MotoGP bike in 2007, but that's not the case now.  Next year we will have to field an 800cc machine, to comply with the rules restricting capacity.  For this reason, it's difficult to predict whether we'll be in a position to challenge for the title until we've had an opportunity to assess the 800cc machine on track.

Q: It was obvious from your comments last year that the decision to replace Alex Hofmann with Randy de Puniet was a difficult one for you personally. What are your thoughts now, after Randy's performance during pre-season testing?

A: Maybe I was being a bit patriotic with Alex, wanting a German rider in a German team, but I really didn't see the need to replace him.  We discussed the rider situation in some detail, with the consensus being that Randy should ride alongside Shinya Nakano this year. And this I agreed to.

I'm pleased to say that Randy has surprised me during pre-season testing. I don't think anyone, including myself, expected him to adapt so quickly to riding the Ninja ZX-RR. His performance during testing has been very encouraging, but his attitude has also impressed me; he is very motivated and eager to learn.

We will see how he goes once we start racing, but I'm confident that the decision to bring him into the Kawasaki Racing Team was the right one.  Not just because he's a talented rider, who I think has a big future in MotoGP, but also because the French market is very important to Kawasaki and Randy already has a large following from his time in the 250cc World Championship.

Q: You have something of a reputation for developing young riders. What advice would you give to Randy in his debut year in MotoGP?

A: How to ride the bike, where to brake and which line to choose is something that only the rider can decide as he gains more experience, but I think it's important to help a young rider to adapt to the mental pressures of racing at the top level.

Randy needs to understand that being a professional racer at this level is as much about what he does off the bike as what he does on it.  But then he also needs to understand how to separate these two aspects, so that when he's on the bike that's where his concentration is focused.  In my position I can offer advice, and also be there for him if he needs talk through anything, or wants a second opinion about something.

We've already helped Randy prepare for his debut season in MotoGP, both physically and mentally, and we'll continue helping and developing him as a rider throughout the season.

Q: Kawasaki have been quite innovative in preparing Shinya Nakano and Randy de Puniet for the coming season, enlisting the services of a Sports Scientist to assess their physical fitness and to plan effective training schedules. What are the benefits of this scientific approach?

A: While the scientific approach is widespread in other performance sports, the use of sports science in MotoGP is still in its infancy.  It's early days yet, but I think we're going to see more riders adopt this scientific approach as they realize the advantages it offers.

As a former rider myself, I understand what goes on in a rider's head when he's on the bike, and also the physical and mental demands that racing at the very top level places on them. Many people still underestimate the physical and mental strength needed to make it to the top of motorcycle racing.

When you mention the word athlete, most people think of sprinters, long distance runners or competition cyclists, but a MotoGP rider is as much an athlete as any of these sportsmen and women and, as such, they benefit from a scientific approach to their training.

For sure, every rider is different, but there is always a system that works for the individual behind every successful rider. Look at Valentino Rossi; his system is to take off after a race and party with friends in Ibiza.  It's his way of relaxing, but also for preparing both mentally and physically for the next race as well.

What we're doing this year is improving the efficiency of our riders' training program, to ensure that they are in the best possible physical condition for each race.  It's an important step on the road to ensuring that we get maximum output from our riders every time they take to the track.  I think we will see an increasing use of sports science in MotoGP in the future.

Q: This is Shinya Nakano's third year with Kawasaki.  How important is this year to Shinya?  Is he under pressure to deliver results after two seasons developing the Ninja ZX-RR to suit his riding style?

A: Shinya puts himself under pressure to do well. He wants to win races, and he pushes all the time to achieve this.  Last year I think he lost a little confidence in the bike, because it didn't deliver what he was expecting, but this year is different.  I think now, after his involvement in the development process, he feels that the latest Ninja ZX-RR is his bike, and that it is capable of winning races.

But it's not just the bike.  Bridgestone have made some big steps forward with their tires over the winter, and for the first time Shinya has a teammate who is capable of pushing him on the track.  What we're seeing now is Shinya digging deep into his reserves to keep him in front, and that's a good thing for him.  It's almost like he's back in 2000, when he also had to dig deep in his battle with Olivier Jacque for the 250cc World Championship.

Q: It's no secret that you have a five-year contract to run the Kawasaki Racing Team in MotoGP.  This contract runs out at the end of the 2007 season, but have you already started negotiating with Kawasaki to extend the contract past this date?

A: What is confirmed at the moment is that we will run the Kawasaki Racing Team until the end of the 2007 season, and we must fulfill our obligation to Kawasaki by doing the best job that we can during this time.

Of course, after eleven years running Kawasaki's official factory team in World Superbike and MotoGP I would like to continue the partnership into 2008 and beyond, because I think we bring something of value to Kawasaki with the professionalism of our team.

I'm sure we will discuss the situation with Kawasaki management in the future, but for now we are focused completely on our preparations for the coming season.

Q: The MotoGP grid is now looking somewhat depleted, with Aprilia leaving at the end of 2004 and WCM and Honda Pons absent from the grid this year.  Do you think we'll see more manufacturers join the series in the future?

A: I think some manufacturers have had a bad experience in MotoGP, and that it will take quite a long time for them to return.  The problem is that, while it's easy to plan a MotoGP campaign in the boardroom, it's not always so easy once you take what you've designed on the drawing board and place it into the most competitive motorcycle racing series in the world.

And again, racing is not just about building a strong engine, or using as much Formula 1 technology as possible. To be competitive in this class you need a strong bike, talented riders and also an experienced team to ensure that everything works together.  Not taking this into account has maybe been the mistake made by certain manufacturers in the past.

As for the future, I think it's possible to attract new manufacturers to MotoGP, as long as we ensure that it stays financially viable to compete at the top level.  This is really the responsibility of the MSMA and I just hope that they keep this in mind when they are deliberating future rule changes, rather than only thinking of their own ability to win races.

I also think that as MotoGP grows in popularity we'll see new sponsors coming in to take advantage of what is an extremely dynamic sport, and I'm sure that this will entice back the manufacturers who've previously pulled the plug on their MotoGP projects.

Q: The new Ninja ZX-RR has been impressive in testing, as have Shinya Nakano and Randy de Puniet, but what do you think are realistic goals for Kawasaki this season?

A: Personally I think we're in a position where we can realistically expect to finish between sixth and eighth position in the final championship standings.  For sure it's not going to be easy, because we're competing against the very best riders on bikes from the leading manufacturers, but I still think it's possible.

I also think that, at some circuits this year, we stand a very good chance of seeing one of our riders finish on the podium.  We've done it twice before, under unusual circumstances, but this year I don't think we will have to rely so much on lady luck to finish in the top three.

Q: At which circuits do you think Kawasaki stand the best chance of a podium finish this season?

A: The strongpoint of the Ninja ZX-RR is the way it handles, so I think our best chance for a podium this year must come at some of the more technical circuits like Jerez and Sachsenring.

But I must also say, with the home crowd advantage, it's possible that we could end up on the podium in Le Mans and Motegi. Randy has always had good results in his home Grand Prix, and our bike seems to go well at Le Mans, while Shinya has already finished on the podium at Motegi and will be keen to repeat that success this year.

Q: Does racing in front of his home crowd provide a rider with more incentive to do well? Some riders say that strong home support is worth tenths off their lap time, but is this true?

A: I guess it depends on the rider. Personally I was always too stressed at my home Grand Prix, so it was never one of my better races in the season.  But Shinya and Randy both seem to push that little bit harder for a good result when the crowd is behind them.

Shinya Nakano - Kawasaki MotoGP
Shinya Nakano, Number 56

Interview: Shinya Nakano
Here's another Q&A, this time with Shinya Nakano.  2006 marks Shinya Nakano's third season aboard the Ninja ZX-RR, and the 28-year-old Kawasaki rider has already impressed during pre-season testing.  Consistently in the top three fastest riders during tests in Malaysia, Australia and Spain, Nakano heads for Jerez, and the first race of the season, determined to put Kawasaki back on the podium where they belong.

Q: This will be your third season with Kawasaki in MotoGP, but how have things changed since you first joined the team, and does the continuity give you an advantage over riders that have changed teams over the winter?

A: The team around me have been virtually the same since I joined in 2004, but the difference now is that I know them a lot better, and I also have a good understanding of how everyone works.

This means communication is a lot better within the team. The same is also true of the Kawasaki engineers in Japan, with whom I've built up a strong relationship over the past two seasons. This relationship has led to trust on both sides, with the engineers trusting me to give them the information they need to continue their development program, and I trust them completely to interpret my feedback in a way that leads to improvements to my Ninja ZX-RR.

Because I understand better Kawasaki's way of working, and they understand what I need in terms of the bike, I do think it gives us a small advantage over those riders who, this season, will have to go through the learning process with a new team.

Q: How has you preparation for the 2006 season differed to that of previous years?

A: Physically I'm better prepared this season. Last year I started working with a professional physical trainer, and we've continued working on my physical fitness over the winter and between tests.

As a result, I head into the new season better prepared physically than before, and the difference is noticeable when I'm on the bike, especially during testing when we can be riding for seven or eight hours a day.

It's a confidence thing really. When the going gets tough I just think back to some of the hard training sessions I've done over the winter and that gives me the confidence to continue; I've done it before, so I can do it again.

Physical fitness alone doesn't make you faster, but it does allow you to go faster for longer, which means you can push yourself as hard at the end of a race as you can at the start, and that's an important advantage.

Q: And how do you prepare yourself mentally for racing? Are you a rider who spends hours in his hotel room the night before thinking through every aspect of the race ahead?

A: You only have to look at someone like Valentino Rossi to see what a strong mental approach to each race can achieve. Improving my mental approach is something that I'm constantly working on, because it is so important.

As for thinking my way through the race, yes, I do think about race strategy the night before, but not in too much detail. The situation during a race changes rapidly, and you need to be able to adapt to take advantage of these changes.

If you spend too much time mentally mapping your race beforehand, then I think you can lose the ability to react to what's going on around you. You can find yourself keeping to your carefully thought out game plan instead of taking advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

Q: For this year Kawasaki has produced a completely new bike, which you've tested extensively over the winter. How has the bike been improved, and how competitive is it now compared to the rest of the field?

A: When Kawasaki told me they would make a new bike for 2006, I asked them not to make too many big changes, as last year's bike had many positive points. So, while the 2006 Ninja ZX-RR is completely new in every respect, it still shares a lot in common with last year's bike. It's more of an evolution than a revolution.

As a result we've ended up with a bike that retains the positive points of previous versions, but also offers significant improvements in a number of key areas.

When I first tried the new bike in Malaysia at the end of last year I was extremely impressed by the handling, and it was very easy to match my race lap times on the new bike straight away.

The new engine is also a big improvement over the old in terms of power, but it is also easier to ride.  For example, we now have more over rev, which means that gearbox selection is less critical and you have more gear options when you're on track.

Instead of maybe having to change up the gearbox for a particular part of a circuit, it's now possible to stay in a lower gear and use the additional revs.  We use a very efficient quick shifter on the Kawasaki, but even the fastest gear change loses you time, so the fewer gear changes you have to make the better.

Overall, the Ninja ZX-RR is a much more competitive package this year and, as we've seen from the overseas and IRTA tests, we've closed the gap on the other manufacturers quite significantly.

Q: Your lap times, and those of your teammate Randy de Puniet, have certainly been impressive during testing, but how do these times relate to race performance?

A: The important lap times to look at are not the ones done on qualifying tires at the end of each day, but the times that are being achieved consistently on race tires.

In the past we've come away from winter testing knowing that we are over a second off the pace going into the first race, but this year has been very different.

This year we've been running consistently in the top three on race tires during testing, and this is what counts when it comes to predicting race performance.  Based on the winter test times, I'm confident that we are now capable of running right at the front of the races.  I'm also fairly confident that a podium finish is now a realistic possibility at more than one track this year.

Q: How much of this improvement is a result of Bridgestone's development program over the winter months?

A: Tire performance is absolutely critical in MotoGP, and Bridgestone have made some big steps forward over the winter.  Last year we struggled at a couple of circuits, but Bridgestone has addressed the problems we had very quickly and the results during winter testing have been very positive.

I guess this is partly a result of the fact that this is Kawasaki's third season on Bridgestone tires.  Now they know what we need in terms of tires, compared to the other Bridgestone teams, and we are able to communicate our requirements to them a lot more easily now we understand how they work.

Q: Your winter test schedule has been intensive, starting almost as soon as the last season ended.  How hard physically is testing extensively during the winter, and how difficult is it to stay motivated?

A: Sure, it's not easy to maintain concentration and motivation when you're testing for three or four days at a time, starting early in the morning and only finishing when the track closes in the evening.

Testing in Malaysia is particularly difficult, mainly because of the conditions. It's hot, it's humid and the circuit itself is extremely demanding physically.  Also, it's normally the first test of the year, so you haven't had the opportunity to prepare under less demanding conditions beforehand.

But, after seven years in Grand Prix, I've figured out how to manage the testing, so that it is possible to maintain concentration throughout the long days.  Also, I've learned how important it is to rest between tests, so that you have a chance to recover fully before taking to the track again.

Of course, maintaining concentration and motivation has been a little easier this year, because we've seen improvements in the bike at every test.  When you can see your lap time improving during every session, it provides a very strong incentive to keep pushing.  It's certainly a lot easier than when expected improvements don't materialize, but you just have to keep on racking up the laps.

Q: How do you view Randy de Puniet's arrival in the team, and how important is it that you beat your teammate?

A: Randy has surprised me a little with how quickly he's adapted to the Ninja ZX-RR, and how fast he's been from the start of testing. The same is also true of some of the other riders who've moved up from the 250cc class, like Dani Pedrosa.

Both Randy and I came up from the 250cc class, so our riding styles are quite similar, as are our settings on the bike.  To have two riders so similar is good for the team and for Bridgestone, as we are both pushing for the same thing. In the past my style and that of my teammate has been very different, which means we've been asking different things from both the bike and the tires.  Now we're heading in the same direction with both, and that is easier for everyone I think.

I'm happy that I have a strong teammate like Randy, but I don't tend to concentrate so much on what my teammate is doing - unless he's in front of me.  Sure, I am aware of his lap times during testing, and it's good to have someone pushing you on the same bike, but my aim is to beat everyone, not just my teammate.

Q: What are your aims for the coming season in terms of results?

A: I've finished tenth in the championship standings for the last two years, so my first aim is to finish higher in 2006, ideally in the top five.

I'm also looking forward to battling for position at the front of the race, when in the past I've been left to fight it out in the second or third group of riders because the leaders have made a break at the front.

I think the podiums will come this year, which is a good thing because I'm missing the champagne.  I've not tasted podium champagne since Motegi in 2004, and I'm starting to get withdrawal symptoms now!

Q: At which tracks do you think your chances of a podium finish are best this year?

A: Jerez is a good track for me and for the Ninja ZX-RR.  I had a good result in the race last year, and we also had a good IRTA test at the circuit as well.  So, I'd have to say that Jerez could be one of the places where we have the best chance of a podium finish.

Sachsenring is another possibility, as the characteristics of the circuit suit the Ninja ZX-RR.  Also, our team is based in Germany, so it would be good to finish on the podium at the team's home race.

And then there is Malaysia, a circuit we know intimately through testing, and one that we've gone well at in the past.  It may be viewed as a power track, and the two long straights certainly reward outright top speed, but tires are of critical importance because of the heat and humidity, and I think our Bridgestone tires offer something of an advantage at Sepang.

Also, I'd like to think I can go well at Motegi in my home race.  Motegi isn't a track that suits the Ninja ZX-RR particularly, but I'm hoping the strong home support I get when I race there will be worth a couple of tenths of a second per lap!
 

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